Age of Anxiety

Before the switch to the new translation of the Roman Missal in 2011, one of the prayers in the Mass went like this: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

I remember that my dad used to like that prayer a lot because he suffered from anxiety and depression. When I was a kid, I thought I understood what anxiety was like because my dad had it, and it affected the family. There were other times when I’d get angry at my dad because he couldn’t “get over” what I perceived to be a simple emotion.

The often-paired afflictions of anxiety and depression seem to be much more prevalent than before, especially among American teenagers, according to this New York Times article. Anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors, including the college admissions process, social media, bullying, peer pressure, pressure from parents, a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, and so on.

No joke; getting into college can be incredibly stressful. As soon as you enter high school as a freshman, you are indirectly told that if you aren’t successful in the conventional sense (i.e., going to college, getting a degree, working in the corporate world), you’re not going to make it in life. So everyone gets it in their head that they must get to college at all costs. This leads to a frenetic rat race to get the best SAT scores, participate in every extracurricular activity there is, take all the AP classes you possibly can until your brain turns to mush, and generally give yourself stomach ulcers before you even turn 18. Community college is the cheaper option, and it no longer has the stigma it once did. Go for 2 years and transfer to a 4-year school. You will be glad you did.

As for social media, I am grateful that when I was in high school, social media was in its infancy. Even then, it was anxiety inducing because you read things about people that you took to be true simply because the words were printed online. You wondered if you’d get written about next, and there was no way to control who said what if it was on someone else’s page. It’s even worse now because of all the perfect images on Instagram. I don’t think I need to repeat that it sucks to feel as if you’re constantly being compared with perfection.

Bullying sometimes goes along with social media nowadays. I don’t think teenagers and kids are always taught to feel secure within themselves. They are indirectly taught to look outward or constantly be doing things to boost their self-esteem, and self-esteem built on outward things and constantly being busy is like a house built on sand. To me, if your sense of self is built on your own intrinsic worth and not on what you can do or who you hang out with or what kinds of gadgets you have, you will be more inoculated against bullying.

Nothing can really be done about the genetic predisposition to anxiety, except to alleviate sources of anxiety so they don’t make what is already there worse. Medication is always an option; there is no shame in it. However, the most important thing about medication is to make sure it is absolutely necessary and to take it when and how it is prescribed.

Overall, I believe undue anxiety in teenagers is caused by pressure, and that pressure could come from peers, parents, or both. I hear parents all the time bragging about how their kids are involved in a million activities, making straight A’s in school, and somehow managing to also be superheros in their spare time. I find myself thinking… either I was one hell of a slacker in high school, these parents are exaggerating, or their kids really are actual superheroes. I don’t remember my parents putting that much pressure on me. Maybe kids these days do all those things of their own accord or because their friends are also doing it, and they feel they need to compete. It could have very little to do with the parents, but I find that hard to believe.

To alleviate anxiety, it is important to keep things in perspective. Getting into college may seem like the most important thing in the world, and it certainly seems that way, but your health is more important in the long run.

Clarity in Modernity

Sometimes I get moments of perfect clarity. Everything makes sense. All the questions I’ve been pondering for many years are answered. I know the truth, even if it hurts. And yet sometimes, after having these moments, I ignore the truth.

No, I’m not on drugs. I honestly couldn’t tell you what brings these clear moments about. But I had another of them last night.

There isn’t a lot of permanence in today’s society, or even anything that lasts a decent amount of time. People are constantly picking up and changing jobs, significant others, hobbies, and so on. We are searching for something.

Last night, my friends and I were in church decorating a poster board for the ministry fair. We talked about how the church (our particular parish, not the Church) has been in somewhat of a decline. Around 600 teenagers/young adults are registered members of the parish, but you don’t see anywhere near that number at Mass. The amounts we are taking in during the offertory are dangerously low. People are leaving Mass early, and only a few linger in the vestibule to chat afterward.

Everyone seems to disappear.

Why? Because time rushes on and we can’t sit still. Why do you need God watching your every move when the government and your mobile devices already do that?

We can’t look our friends in the eyes because we feel the compulsive tug to look at our phones and see what people we never see in real life are doing. Then our real-life friends disappear, but we still have them on Facebook, so it’s OK.

Holidays become meaningless—just another way for the great big companies to make money and become bigger and greater. What are we really celebrating at Christmas? The birth of a man whose life is increasingly irrelevant to us because we have lost the meaning of sacrifice. The “I” is sacred. If it doesn’t work for “me,” then it can’t work, and I’m going to find something else.

My church is boring, so I’m finding another church. I haven’t gotten a promotion, so I’m finding another job. My significant other doesn’t make me happy, so I’m going on Tinder and finding another one. You know, I think I might get a new iPhone. 

I know I’m being overdramatic. We’re not all that vacuous. But I think we are turning in that direction. We are so accustomed to rapid change because nothing inside computer screens stays stable for very long. But with things changing so rapidly, there is no time to really think and ponder what’s going on and what the point of everything is. We’re just living for the moment, which passes and changes so quickly that we forget what we’re truly living for.

Too Much Entertainment

Once upon a time, I was in ninth grade and there were two things I liked more than almost anything (besides reading): music and video games (namely Pokémon and Unreal Tournament). So when I came home from a rough day of being a freshman in high school, I would blow off steam by sitting in front of the family computer (that is, if the seat wasn’t already occupied by my brother) and destroying pixelated soldiers in Unreal Tournament.

One day I had the brilliant idea to enhance my killing sprees by listening to music while playing the game. So I was merrily running along in a fictional militaristic world, flak cannon in virtual hand, blasting enemies into freshets of imaginary blood while listening to Bon Jovi. Pure nerdy bliss. My blood pressure was low, my ears were filled with the sounds of the game and the music, and then my mom looked over at me and said, “Maggie, that’s too much.” (Or something like that. At the time, I was angry at having my joy interrupted and didn’t bother to remember her exact words.)

That was back in 2002, before everyone on God’s green earth had a cell phone, before social media really took off, before mp3 players and iPads and Kindles, and before video games looked so realistic that you couldn’t tell the difference between animation and a live-action movie. I feel sorry for teenagers today, who have three or four times as many modes of entertainment and thus three or four times as many distractions. It’s not just too much. It’s way too much.

I help with my church’s youth group, and this past Sunday’s session was about how we are consumed by technology, social media, materialism, and other modern-day distractions. The teenagers were given a slip of paper on which they were asked to estimate the number of hours per day they spent on social media, browsing the Internet, texting, and so forth. The findings weren’t shocking to me or any of the adults present, especially because a few of the teenagers were tied to their phones during the night. Even so, we hoped the exercise made them realize that there was a lot of unnecessary “noise” in their lives and that the noise can prevent them from being able to sit in silence, to meditate, and to pray.

We taught the teenagers that there is a simple solution to escaping from all the “noise,” and that is spending time before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, AKA Eucharistic Adoration. Just a few minutes of silence and/or prayer per day can put things back in perspective and stop the noise long enough to help one remember that the world and all its distractions will pass away, and all the “entertainment” we have can never fill the gap in our souls that yearns for God.